The Good Wife is the best show on television.
Alright, that’s a hard one to argue – what about sitcoms, reality shows, documentaries on human trafficking, all worthy of different criteria? That’s true.
So let me narrow this down: The Good Wife is the best one-hour drama on television and/or the Internet.
The Good Wife, never more nimble and intelligent than in its most-recent fifth season, just gets better with age. Here’s why…
1. Some of the most complex and thoughtfully-executed character development ever
A character’s arc is the sum-up of their series-long evolution as a character, as a person. Shows with strong character development offer a cast with compelling long-term arcs. Much like the best movies, a character is transformed by their experiences.
So what does The Good Wife do so well, even better than shows praised as the best of our time?
Alicia Florrick (the divine Juliana Margulies) starts off as a warm, maternal, intelligent underdog in the dog-eat-dog legal world that she’s been thrust into. Almost two decades out of practice in law, she’s pulled back into the working world after her philandering State’s Attorney husband (Chris Noth) is jailed for corruption, trading political favours for sexual favours from sex workers. She is making sacrifices for her family, and derives a new confidence from them.
But unlike many lead characters in prestige dramas, Alicia Florrick doesn’t just travel in one direction. The show is about those components of her personality thrown into question by her work – What is good? What is a marriage? Who am I? Alicia is introspective and fretful about who she’s becoming. About the ethical lines she becomes comfortable crossing. About the grey areas between personal and business she begins working within. Her priorities shift. She changes: she becomes more competitive, more sharp-tongued, more manipulative. And yet is recognisably the same person.
The Alicia competing for a permanent first-year position at the firm in season one is a different person than the one fearing the young lawyer she’s mentoring is gunning for her job in season three, who is different from the Alicia considering starting a new firm in season five. Her perspectives and her strategies change the more immersed in this world she gets. Which is not the same as a black-to-white transformation. Alicia’s moral boundaries shift, but they shift back, and in different directions too. She contains multitudes. She doubts herself, questions herself, questions her choices. And she is a sum of all of these decisions.
The show keeps her grounded by reminding us that she’s keeping one eye on herself. That she looks back at the Alicia of season one and doesn’t always recognise herself now.
Most importantly: the show refuses, at any point, to tell us what we should think of her.
It’s not just Alicia, either. Every member of the ensemble shifts and grows over the course of the series. Partner at the firm Diane Lockhart struggles with her political identity, wrestling with issues like feminism and gun control in the context of things like falling in love with a man on the opposite side of the political spectrum, a potential appointment as a judge, and even a shot at a Supreme Court seat. Will Gardner is constantly caught between the better angels of his nature and his desire to go after what he wants. Private investigator Kalinda Sharma walks the line between safe loneliness and risky vulnerability. Cocky young lawyer Cary Agos plays both sides of the court, as defense and prosecutor, as we watch him discover what type of lawyer he is becoming.
None of these are linear transformations, inevitable steps down a predetermined staircase. The show’s approach to character, and to life, is a lot more textured and interesting than that.
2. The acting is phenomenal
Five Emmy wins and twenty-five total acting nominations for the show in five seasons. Not bad, huh? That includes two wins for Julianna Margulies, putting in one of the best, most subtle and rewarding lead performances in television. Christine Baranski, who occasionally feels like the lead of her own show, has scored a nomination every single year, and deserved a win in most of those.
From the regular cast to the standout guests – including Carrie Preston¸ whose quirky genius lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni has gotten popular calls for a spinoff – this is a cast of giants.
3. The Good Wife lives in the real world
What do I mean by this?
The show is rich with detail and observations about the world in which we live. It’s class conscious, exploring the echelons of the wealthy and privileged while occasionally giving glimpses of those who have no access to this world. This is a cast of high-powered lawyers, much of whose casework involves big tech companies like ChumHum (a Google stand-in) and class-action suits against pharmaceutical companies. They occasionally defend undocumented immigrants or poor ‘pro-bono’ cases, but they’re just as likely to be protecting the children of the wealthy, or big-time drug dealers. This is a firm that, for an episode, wages war on the NSA – and wins.
It’s a morally grey world. It’s not that morals have no place; after all, the cast is emotionally invested in their clients, especially when they are innocent. But they are players in a system that doesn’t care about right or wrong, merely what is provable. In this world, everybody deserves the best representation they can afford, and the show is aware that this doesn’t always lead to justice. But there are moral stories: Alicia fighting an insurance company to help a woman access funding for an experimental procedure, or taking on a big company whose product has harmed innocents. And in between those occasional stories with a clear hero and villain, there is what really motivates lawyers at their level: the win. The thing that determines employability and bonuses and prestige. And the show is so skillful at it that you find yourself rooting for the win too, until the show doubles back and reminds you that it isn’t everything.
It’s a show that can be cynical, but isn’t bleak. A woman accusing a well-known man of raping her declines to press charges because she knows she’ll be subjected to a media witch hunt. In another case, a deliberating jury is just about to deliver a verdict of Not Guilty for an innocent man, only to be interrupted by the man taking a plea deal and going to prison. But there is always a balance of cases that go one way or the other.
It’s also a world where redemption is possible but not always permanent, such as in the case of Alicia’s husband who ascends to Governor, only to begin to breach the same unethical lines he did before. A world where, in a love triangle, the eventual options can end up as ‘none of the above’ through growth or tragedy.
This is a show that knows the world it’s exploring, and wants us to know it too.
4. The storytelling is nimble and topical
The show is a fascinating blend of ongoing stories and individual episodic cases, which allows it to do things nobody else on TV can really do. One week can be an exploration of Miley Cyrus-eqsue young celebrity and social media; the next, a case about a political dissident unlawfully detained by a foreign government; followed up by a tech case about search engine optimization that holds careers in the balance. Anonymous, Bitcoin, social media. Season-long political campaigns. Years-long relationships with individual clients and companies, punctuated by individual cases. Stories about layoffs and scandal. And a great grasp on the quirks of today’s information and attention age, from political and legal manoeuvres using Twitter to the effects of the 24-hour basic cable news cycle.
5. I’m not the only one saying it
Take a look:
– “Television For Adults: The Best Drama on TV? It’s The Good Wife, Hands Down.” Willa Paskin writing for Slate.
– “The Good Wife: The Best Show on Television Right Now“. Stephen Marche writing for Esquire.
– “The Good Wife Has Proven Itself A Worthy Successor to The Wire“. Todd VanDerWerff writing for The AV Club.
And there’s plenty more where those came from. Want to Google it? I’ll wait here.
Or you could just pick up on the show and get watching. You won’t be disappointed. I sure wasn’t.
When is The Good Wife on TV? In Canada, The Good Wife airs Sundays following Madam Secretary on Global
Where can I watch The Good Wife online for free? GlobalTV.com/thegoodwife streams full episodes of The Good Wife online for free, or watch with the Global Go app on your iOS or Android mobile device. Episodes are typically posted the day after the initial on-air broadcast.